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Lessons from Nagasaki

Sixty years ago this month a single B-29 piloted by Captain Charles Sweeney dropped the second atomic bomb ever used in war. The bomb destroyed the industrial sector of the Japanese city of Nagasaki and killed 75,000 people. Within days, Japan surrendered. The Second World War was over. The era of weapons of mass destruction had begun.

 Aine Donovan and Ronald Green
Aine Donovan and Ronald Green (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Debate still rages about the morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  Was it really necessary to use this terrible new weapon to end the war with Japan? Were there military or diplomatic alternatives? What role did the growing mistrust of Russia play in the decision making? Was the second bomb really needed? And, with the Japanese government teetering on the edge of surrender, did the Nagasaki bomb push it to decision or was it a needless waste of lives?

Recently, we visited Nagasaki in search of answers to some of these questions. The industrial area where the bomb exploded has been totally rebuilt with offices and homes. The downtown heart of the city was relatively untouched. Through it threads the narrow Nakashimi River, populated with colorful carp and spanned by centuries-old stone bridges. Tourists snap photos at one of Japan's most picturesque spots.

Because the bomb fell on the military-industrial district and spared the commercial and residential city center, only half as many people died at Nagasaki as Hiroshima. George Weller, one of the first reporters on the scene, wrote, "The atomic bomb may be classified as a weapon capable of being used indiscriminately, but its use in Nagasaki was selective and proper and as merciful as such a gigantic force could be expected to be."

But Weller's praise was unjustified. The bomb was a miss. Cloud cover over the city almost prevented Sweeney and his crew from dropping it. At the last moment, with fuel running low, the bombardier saw a small opening suddenly in the clouds. He was able to get a fix on the industrial plants, his backup aiming point.

The bomb fell two miles away from where the planners intended. Records in U.S. military archives reveal that the primary aiming point was Nagasaki's downtown commercial area, with its temples, public buildings and historic bridges.

The debates about the atomic bombing of Japan will probably never end. Whatever the rights or wrongs of those decisions, however, a visit to modern Nagasaki shows that it was possible to use the bomb at the end of the war in ways that reduced civilian deaths. And yet, the reduced toll of destruction at Nagasaki does not reflect humane or ethical considerations. Just the opposite. Civilians were the target at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only an accident of war spared their lives.

In the small Hypocenter Park at the point beneath which the bomb detonated there is a sculpture depicting a maternal figure cradling a baby in her arms. An inscription reads. "Embodied in the monument is the sculptor's reminder that the child is like Japan on the day of the atomic bombing."

Some would object to this representation of Japan in 1945 as an innocent child. Yet, because of the decision making that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many people in Japan and around the world view the inhabitants of the two cities as the real victims of the war. On this view, the U.S. emerges as a brutal killer of women and children.

Nagasaki will always take second place to Hiroshima. But sixty years later, Nagasaki still raises important questions for us. As a nation, have we become intoxicated with our military technology? Do we pay too much attention to what we can do with our weapons, and too little attention to the ethics and politics of their use? Above all, have we become accustomed to conflicts that make civilians the primary victims?

By AINE DONOVAN, Executive Director of the Ethics Institute, and RONALD M. GREEN, Eunice and Julian Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values and Professor of Religion

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08